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Presidential Candidates’ Current and Past Positions on Criminal Justice Issues

A great deal of ink is being spilled on the upcoming presidential election in November, but only a small amount of media coverage has been devoted to the candidates’ positions on criminal justice-related issues. Thus, in the interest of providing PLN readers with information they can use to make informed electoral choices, we are providing the following summary of the criminal justice platforms and backgrounds of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, as well as those of the runners-up from the primary elections. While most people in prison cannot vote, some can – including prisoners in Maine and Vermont, plus pretrial detainees held in local jails who otherwise meet voting requirements.

The Presidential Nominees

Hillary Clinton, Democrat

None of the candidates is more glaringly associated with the promotion of mass incarceration than the former first lady, ex-Secretary of State and Democratic nominee, Hillary R. Clinton. In 1994 her husband signed into law the sweeping Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act – with strong endorsement and support from Hillary – which later earned Bill Clinton the title of “the incarceration president” by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI).

The 1994 crime bill included a number of provisions that expanded the nation’s prison population, which increased by 673,000 prisoners – a spike of nearly 60% at the time – during President Clinton’s eight years in office. First, the law expanded the already voluminous list of federal crimes, including those that made offenders eligible for the death penalty.

It also included $9.7 billion for new prison construction and $8.8 billion for hiring more police officers; prohibited prisoners from receiving Pell grants to fund higher education courses behind bars; and most importantly, established mandatory minimums and harsher sentencing guidelines on the federal level that were subsequently copied by many states. [See: PLN, Dec. 1994, p.1].

“We need more police,” Hillary Clinton said in a 1994 speech when she lobbied for passage of the crime bill. “We need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.”

Further, in 1997, President Clinton signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which opened the floodgates for military-grade weapons and equipment to flow to local police forces. Under the program, which was curtailed by President Obama in 2014, the Pentagon distributed more than $5.4 billion in weapons and military vehicles to local law enforcement agencies, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

“I think where we are today partly can be attributed to what went on in the ‘90s,” said Marc Schindler, JPI’s executive director. “That includes who was in the White House, who was in Congress, who was in statehouses across the country.”

To be clear, the tough-on-crime agenda pushed during Bill Clinton’s presidency – which included the widespread adoption of truth-in-sentencing laws that required prisoners to serve 85% of their sentences, as well as longer prison terms for drug-related crimes – was fully endorsed by the former first lady.

Additionally, it should be noted that President Clinton signed into law other legislation that has had a detrimental impact on prisoners’ rights over the past two decades, including the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. While Hillary was not responsible for those laws, she did not object to or raise concerns about them, either.

As the political landscape has changed since the 1990s, so have Hillary Clinton’s positions on criminal justice issues. In April 2015, just two days after riots erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, Clinton spoke at the annual David Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University, and delivered what called an “impressive” speech on criminal justice and police reform.

With respect to the 1994 crime bill, she said, “we acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then.” Clinton added, “It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences. So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets, but too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored.”

Although her speech wasn’t billed as an official platform statement on criminal justice issues, Clinton said she supported body cameras for all police officers and called for an end to the militarization of police departments. She promised that, if elected, she would ensure that “federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.”

Clinton also alluded to high-profile cases of excessive force and police violence that have resulted in a disproportionate number of deaths of blacks and Hispanics, from Baltimore and Staten Island to Ferguson, from which the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and other reform groups have grown. And she rightly connected the national prison population to “broader patterns of inequality,” as reported by

“Without the mass incarceration that we currently practice, millions fewer people would be living in poverty,” she said. “And it’s not just families trying to stay afloat with one parent behind bars. Of the 600,000 prisoners who re-enter society each year, roughly 60% face long-term unemployment.”

Bill Clinton has since admitted that the tough-on-crime measures enacted during his presidency had negative consequences, and Hillary has recently called for reducing mandatory minimum sentences. Ironically, during the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s campaign played the tough-on-crime card, criticizing Barack Obama for saying federal mandatory minimums should be abolished.

While Clinton had not previously taken a position on for-profit prisons, she addressed that issue after it was reported that her campaign was accepting donations connected to private prison companies.

“When we’re dealing with a mass incarceration crisis, we don’t need private industry incentives that may contribute – or have the appearance of contributing – to over-incarceration,” Clinton spokeswoman Xochiti Hinojosa said in October 2015, when the campaign announced it would no longer accept donations from lobbyists or PACs associated with for-profit prison firms. The $133,246 already donated to Clinton’s campaign by the private prison industry would be given to charity, Hinojosa added, stating Clinton “believes that we should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government.”

Previously, several lobbyists who served as “bundlers,” compiling contributions for the Clinton campaign, also represented private prison companies – including Richard Sullivan with Capitol Counsel, a registered lobbyist for the GEO Group, and Brian Popper, employed by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which lobbies for Corrections Corporation of America.

Clinton announced her position on private prisons only after her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, expressed opposition to the industry and introduced a bill to ban for-profit prisons. She has since pledged to close privately-operated immigrant family detention centers.

Clinton has long supported the death penalty, though more recently has said it should be applied in rare cases, such as for “really heinous crimes.” But she seemed unprepared to respond to an exonerated death row prisoner during a town hall meeting in March 2016. Ricky Jackson, who was wrongfully convicted and served 39 years in Ohio prisons, questioned Clinton’s support of capital punishment, noting the many defendants sentenced to death who were later proven innocent. In response she said it was “a profoundly difficult question,” but affirmed her belief that the death penalty would be appropriate for acts of terrorism or mass murder.


Donald Trump, Republican

The New York real estate developer, author, reality TV star and GOP presidential nominee’s plans for criminal justice reform must be, to use his own catchword, huge! In actuality, though, Donald J. Trump’s criminal justice platform is scanty; for example, the “positions” section on his campaign website does not mention any criminal justice-related issues.

It shouldn’t surprise even Trump’s most fanatical supporters that the candidate whose immigration strategy centers on the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border has steered clear of the nuances of our nation’s complex criminal justice problems.

Trump kicked off his campaign in June 2015 with a speech mostly remembered for referring to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. He promised to build a wall, to be paid for by Mexico, as a solution to illegal immigration; since then he has promoted the creation of a “deportation force” to “round up” undocumented immigrants for mass deportations.

Data and research, however, trump Trump’s assumptions. Studies show there is no correlation between immigrants and violent crime, and non-citizens, in fact, are less likely to end up in prison than American citizens. Also, the most common offenses committed by immigrants are illegal entry into the U.S. and illegal reentry – not violent or serious crimes.

Trump would be lenient to kids who smoke weed, however, as he told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. “Should a kid be thrown in jail because he gets busted for marijuana?” Scarborough asked the candidate in August 2015. “I don’t really think so,” Trump replied, though he added that he believes drug dealers “have to be looked at very strongly.”

More recently, in September 2016, in response to shootings by police officers, Trump endorsed an expansion of “stop and frisk” policies such as those used in New York City, which he described as having worked “incredibly well.” However, the policy in New York was found to disproportionately target blacks and Hispanics for frisk searches, and in 2013 a federal judge held such searches were unconstitutional.

“The idea of creating a national stop-and-frisk policy is the equivalent of advancing martial law and is beyond the constitutional power of the presidency,” said Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, who was quoted in the New York Times.

Trump’s past positions on criminal justice issues are somewhat murky except for one that stands out for its clarity – and incorrectness.

The infamous “Central Park Jogger” case involved the brutal April 19, 1989 assault and rape of a woman jogging in New York City’s Central Park, who was allegedly attacked by a “wilding” group of teenagers. Five black and Hispanic teens were arrested and confessed after police interrogations; known as the Central Park Five, they were all convicted and received prison sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years.

At the time, Donald Trump had advocated for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York in response to the Central Park Jogger case. He ran newspaper ads that said, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”

But the Central Park Five were later exonerated after DNA tests identified someone else as the perpetrator; their confessions had been coerced by police officers, who were accused of fabricating statements and withholding information. A lawsuit filed by the Central Park Five settled for $41 million in September 2014.

Trump refused to back down, saying the settlement in the case was a “disgrace” and the five wrongfully convicted defendants – who were exonerated by DNA evidence – did “not exactly have the pasts of angels.” [See: PLN, March 2016, p.58]. According to comments made by Trump in 2015, he continues to support the death penalty.

Trump has said that if elected he would be a “law-and-order president,” and in September 2016 the Fraternal Order of Police endorsed his presidential campaign. Also, Trump supports private prisons.

The Runners-up

Both the Democratic and Republican primaries were hard-fought, and the runners-up in those campaigns, U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, had both addressed issues concerning our nation’s criminal justice system.


Bernie Sanders, Democrat

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ record on matters of criminal justice is, sadly, a politician’s record. In 1991, on the floor of Congress, he passionately opposed the Violent Crime Prevention Act, assailing both the U.S. incarceration rate and the “disproportionate punishment of black people.” But just three years later Sanders voted in support of President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included numerous provisions that directly contributed to mass incarceration. He also voted for the Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, though in 2005 he supported an unsuccessful bill that would have repealed the latter legislation (as did Hillary Clinton).

Sanders made criminal justice reform a significant part of his presidential campaign, even if it took Black Lives Matters protesters to force him into addressing that issue. After BLM supporters interrupted his speeches in Phoenix and Seattle, Sanders released a “racial justice” platform in August 2015 that he claimed would curb police violence, reduce the disproportionate incarceration of blacks and Hispanics, decriminalize marijuana and ban for-profit prisons.

In the latter regard, the self-declared socialist stated on his website, “It is morally repugnant and a national tragedy that we have privatized prisons all over America,” and “In my view, corporations should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars.”

In September 2015, Sanders introduced the Justice is Not for Sale Act (S. 2054) – named by Prison Legal News managing editor Alex Friedmann, who consulted with the senator’s staff. Among other provisions, the legislation, which has since languished in committee with no co-sponsors, would ban private prisons nationwide, reinstate federal parole, end the ICE detention bed quota, end immigrant family detention, and provide greater oversight for companies that provide fee-based correctional services such as money transfers and phone calls. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.20].

“[I]t is immoral to take campaign contributions from the private prison industry or its lobbyists,” Sanders added, saying his anti-privatization bill would help reduce racial disparities in U.S. prisons. Blacks, he pointed out, are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites; part of that injustice, he argued, can be traced to the “failed ‘War on Drugs’” and the use of “racially-biased mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly.”

“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy,” Sanders stated. “This must change.”

Another component of Sanders’ racial justice platform was the demilitarization of police agencies, which historically have devoted disproportionate resources to patrolling poor, minority neighborhoods.

“We need a real hard look at the way police departments function in America,” Sanders told MSNBC’s Ed Schultz in the wake of a black woman’s apparent suicide at the Waller County Jail in east Texas. In July 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation, slammed to the ground and arrested. Unable to make bail, days later she hanged herself in her cell, jail officials claimed.

“[O]ne could not imagine ... a white, middle-class woman being treated in the same way as Sandra Bland was,” Sanders told Schultz. “... Our criminal justice system is out of control, the number of African-Americans and Hispanics who are in our jails are disproportionately high, we have got to, from A to Z, rethink criminal justice in America so we do not end up having more people in jail than any other country.”

With respect to capital punishment, Sanders is one of the very few politicians who has publicly opposed the death penalty. “I believe the time is now for the United States to end capital punishment. I know that this is not necessarily a popular point of view, but it is, in my view, the right point of view,” he said during a speech before the Senate on October 29, 2015.


Ted Cruz, Republican

The staunchly conservative U.S. Senator from Texas and winner of the Iowa GOP caucus did not make criminal justice reform a central pillar of his campaign, in spite of his support for some reform policies in the past.

In addition to Ted Cruz’s co-sponsorship of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce some federal mandatory minimums, he advocated a broad range of criminal justice reforms in a book published by the Brennan Center for Justice titled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice. The book also included commentaries by Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Joseph Biden and Scott Walker.

Cruz proposed streamlining the federal criminal code, and lamented the almost limitless power of prosecutors and the overwhelming preponderance of plea bargains that have virtually eradicated trial by jury in criminal courts.

“The prosecutor is now the proverbial judge, jury and executioner in the mine-run of cases,” Cruz wrote. “Often armed with an extensive menu of crimes, each with their own sentencing ranges, federal prosecutors can wield their discretionary charging power to great effect by threatening the most serious charges that theoretically (if not realistically) can be proved,” he added.

Speaking in February 2015 in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA), which was authored by his Tea Party colleague U.S. Senator Mike Lee, Cruz applauded what he said were similar reforms in his home state of Texas that had purportedly reduced crime by 22% and decreased criminal justice costs by 12% since 2005.

“The issue that brings us together today is fairness,” Cruz stated at a press conference supporting the bipartisan SSA. “Right now today, far too many young men – in particular African-American young men – find their lives drawn [into] the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor nonviolent drug infractions.”

And nonviolent offenders are where Cruz, like almost every other candidate and current lawmaker, draws the line when it comes to reform efforts. At the same press conference he also said, “the criminal justice system should come down ... like a ton of bricks” on violent criminals, including those “who are using guns” and “dealing drugs to children.”

Lastly, in the wake of the Pope’s memorable visit to the United States in September 2015 [see: PLN, Jan. 2016, p.52], Senator Cruz pointedly disagreed with the Catholic Church’s call for abolition of the death penalty. He told Politico that he believes the death penalty is, ironically, a “recognition of the preciousness of human life,” adding that for those who commit murder or rape children, “the ultimate punishment should apply.”

Other Political Parties

The U.S. essentially has a one-party system, with both Republicans and Democrats being flip sides of the same political coin, differentiated mainly by the special interest groups that support them. Tough-on-crime policies, the enactment of draconian sentences and a complete lack of concern about prison conditions have long been bipartisan endeavors, and most lawmakers’ positions on criminal justice issues are subject to the political winds of change.

It is worth remembering, though, that there are many other political parties, even if they are largely ignored by the mainstream media. They include the American Independent Party, American Freedom Party, Constitution Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, Peace and Freedom Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Party USA, Reform Party, Veterans Party of America and Workers World Party, among others. Plus there is the Tea Party, though that is considered a movement rather than a formal political party, and it is usually associated with Republicans and Libertarians.

The Green Party’s criminal justice platform includes policies to “reduce the prison population, invest in rehabilitation, and end the failed war on drugs.” According to the party’s website, “Our priorities must include efforts to prevent violent crime and address the legitimate needs of victims, while addressing the socio-economic root causes of crime and practicing policies that prevent recidivism.” The Green Party advocates alternatives to incarceration, “humane and sanitary” prison conditions, abolition of the death penalty and mandatory sentencing laws, an end to privately-operated prisons and “a step-by-step program to decriminalize all drugs in the United States.”

The criminal justice platform of the Libertarian Party states, “Criminal laws should be limited in their application to violations of the rights of others through force or fraud, or to deliberate actions that place others involuntarily at significant risk of harm. Therefore, we favor the repeal of all laws creating ‘crimes’ without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes. We support restitution to the victim to the fullest degree possible at the expense of the criminal or the negligent wrongdoer. The constitutional rights of the criminally accused, including due process, a speedy trial, legal counsel, trial by jury, and the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty, must be preserved. We assert the common-law right of juries to judge not only the facts but also the justice of the law.” The Libertarian Party supports abolition of the death penalty.


In recent years the tough-on-crime mantra that has long been a mainstay in our nation’s political system has changed to a call to be “smart on crime.” But for that we need smart lawmakers who have the political will to fight for meaningful criminal justice reform – and those, judging from the current crop of candidates, are apparently in short supply.

Note: As a non-profit organization, PLN does not endorse or support any candidate for political office.

Sources:,,,,, CNN,,, Washington Post,,, The New York Times,,,,,,,,,,,, Huffington Post,,,,,,,, The Marshall Project,

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